© BM 2008
Chapter Four – Episode 6
“Would you like a cup of tea, or coffee, dear?”
The woman looked up at the Filipino nurse. “What? I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Would you like tea, or coffee?”
“Oh, yes, thanks. That’s very kind of you. Tea, no, coffee would be lovely.”
“Yes, please, milk, no sugar.”
“I’ve just come on duty. Is he a relative?” She indicated the still figure in the bed, festooned with drips and tubes, and totally motionless.
“He’s my Dad. Do you know how he is?”
“I know he’s not very well, dear, but you need to speak to Doctor.” She turned away, leaving the younger woman with a vague, and quite irrational sense of irritation. Why always “doctor?” Why not “the doctor”, or “his doctor?” Makes the bloody man seem like God. She had been there for two hours now, and apart from a brief appearance by the nurse on the earlier shift, she had been alone. It would be another hour or so before her husband, Danny, would arrive from work, and she thanked God for Moira, her mother in law, who had collected the children from school, and was looking after them.
She turned back to her father, his face and head swathed in bandages. Such a familiar face, a face she had known all her life, almost unrecognisable now, the colour drained from the perpetual tan. She did not know this somehow shrunken stranger, lying as if he was already dead, in the crisp white sheets. That face, which she had seen change over the years, ageing with grace and dignity, was now an old man’s face, and was devoid of any dignity. She had been here for three days now, since she had been told of the accident, and had observed no change in his condition. This man, who had been her first love, before her husband, and son, had pushed him into a “bronze medal position”, as he often put it, was, it seemed, already beyond her. Would she never again see him playing with the children, swinging one or the other round and round until everyone was dizzy, and they all fell down laughing? Would he never again hold her and say, “how’s my favourite lady?”? She knew this man, not only as her father, but also as her friend. Her looks came from her mother, her character from him; kind, sensitive, abrasive and argumentative, as needed, determined, and so sure of himself. He mustn’t die now, not after the last four years. He deserved some luck at last; a chance to get out from under the black cloud which had blighted him.
It was a youngish man, in a white coat, presumably a doctor, although she had never seen him before. She let go of her father’s hand, and stood up.
“I’m Doctor Spence, Michael Spence.” He offered his hand.
“Margaret Connor, most people call me Maggie.”
He indicated for her to sit down again.
She remained standing, and hesitated, fearing the answer before putting the question. “Is there any improvement?”
Spence smiled at her, an old man’s smile on a young man’s face. “Please sit down, Mrs Connor.”
Spence also hesitated. “The bad news is that there has been no improvement in your father’s condition. The good news is that there has been no deterioration either.”
“Longer term…”, she broke off without completing the sentence.
“Your father is physically a very strong and healthy man. He has a number of injuries, which I know Doctor Olabbi has discussed with you. I believe we can address all of those successfully. However, your father has been unconscious for over three days now, and, I’ll be frank, we do not know when, or if, he will regain consciousness. If you believe in God, I suggest you put it in His hands. We will do all that medicine can do, but, honestly, I don’t know.”
Maggie framed a question, but allowed it almost to die on her lips, “If he recovers, will he be brain damaged?” She did not consider that the young doctor could, or would answer.
Spence put his hand to his chin, and stroked it thoughtfully before answering. “Mrs Connor, Maggie, truly, I, we do not know. We will do the very best that we can do for your father, but sometimes things are in God’s hands. Sometimes, as well, it can depend on how much a person wants to live. Did your father”. He corrected himself. “Does your father, your Dad, want to live?”
She looked away from the doctor, to the silent unmoving, almost unknown man in the bed.
“Do you think he can hear us?”
Spence shook his head. “No, I’m sure he can’t.”
“I don’t think he would want to live. He hasn’t really wanted to live for a very long time now.” She felt disloyal, somehow dirty, at saying out loud, and to a stranger, something she had felt for the last four years. The tears welled into her eyes, and she turned away from the young doctor.
Spence, hesitated, awkwardly. “I’ll come back later.”
Millar seemed to be floating, seeming to weigh nothing at all. He drifted in the sky, through a succession of white, quickly passing clouds. . There was no pain, no discomfort, just a feeling of well being. A well-known voice was coming to him, then fading away. The familiar Hampshire burr of John Arlott came into his consciousness, caressing him in waves. “So, it’s Miller now, to bowl to Cowdrey. Miller, off his shorter run, is in, bowls, and Cowdrey plays that, academically, back to the bowler.”
Miller, he thought, drowsily, that’s me. As he recovered from the effects of the anaesthetic, he picked up further commentary from the game on the wireless, and realised that it was Oxford University against the Australians. Cowdrey did not last long, losing his wicket to the great Australian all rounder, Keith Miller, and neither did he, Alex Millar, last long, before falling back into a deep and untroubled sleep.
When he awoke again, it was dark, there was no radio, his head was clear, and he was ravenously hungry. He wondered where he was, and then remembered the operation. When was that? It must have been today. What time was it? It was dark and quiet, and raising himself on his pillows, he looked around the hospital ward. He could make out other shapes, vague and undefined on the other beds, but could not tell if they were men, women or children. He could hear a mixture of sounds, breathing, snoring, and a variety of other noises he had never heard before. He presumed that he had returned to the same ward that he had left, and that had been a men’s ward. He had been embarrassed being in a men’s ward. He was not yet fifteen years of age, and although he was big for his age, he was still a boy, a shy boy, frequently struck dumb in the presence of adults. There had been a good deal of quite rough, but good-natured teasing of him, in that off hand Belfast way, when he first entered the ward. There was much talk amongst the older men of Alex’s presence in hospital being necessary because he had the clap, which he knew about only vaguely, or because he was to be circumcised, about which he knew nothing. He was glad when the nurse had put screens around his bed, and the teasing had stopped.
The doctor had been a young man, dark, with a shock of tangled hair. He seemed to be laughing, or smiling all of the time, and poor Alex did not know if, for some reason, the doctor was laughing at him. The young man examined Alex’s foot, and prodded the four or five warts growing there, growing inward, and dammed sore, Alex thought. The doctor called them varruca, but the nearest Alex could get to that was to think of the ex ruler of Egypt, King Farouk. That was close enough, when you are fourteen.
“Can I run in the school sports, doctor?”
“When are the school sports, young man?”
“What, this Saturday?”
“I really do not think that is a very clever idea. It will just be too painful. What events are you in?”
“I’m entered in the 100 yards, 220 yards, 220 relay, and the mile.”
“Oh, is that all”, the doctor replied sarcastically, “I thought you wanted to do something really strenuous.”
”Does that mean that I can?” Alex Millar was too young to recognise irony.
“Alex, I was joking, I’m sorry. I really don’t think your foot will have healed up enough for you to run.” He saw the disappointment in the boy’s face. “Look. Why not wait until Saturday morning, and see how things are, and,” he added hastily, “what your parents think about it. If you are not fit enough to run, you can always go to watch the others.” He realised that he had made an entirely adult compromise. Alex Millar did not, and was content. He had five days to get better.
All of this was being replayed in his mind as he explored, visually, the darkened ward.
Further down the ward was the nurse’s station, and by raising himself on his elbows he could just see a female head, in her nurse’s cap, silhouetted against the small light. She was seated, and bent over her desk. She seemed to be writing. Should he call her? She might get angry. He decided not to, and lay back on his pillows. He was really hungry, just the same.
He must have drifted off to sleep again when he felt someone shake his shoulder.
“Alex, wake up, time for your injections.”
As he opened his eyes, Alex Millar fell in love for the first time in his short life. He had never seen the nurse before. She was blonde, with light coloured eyes, which he decided in the poor light, were probably blue. Her hair was short and curled around her neck, and fringed her forehead. She bent over him, to raise him from the pillows and she felt, and smelt, warm. As she passed her left arm around him, while she straightened his pillows, his face rested against her bosom. He thought he would die. He lay back again.
“Would you like anything?”
He was petrified. What did she mean? Did she know what he had been thinking?
“What?” he croaked.
“Something to eat, perhaps. A cup of tea?”
“Oh, yes please. I’m starving! Can I have some toast?”
She smiled at him, her eyes crinkling. “Yes, I would think so.” She turned away. He never knew her name, never saw her again after that night, but her face, her warmth, her feel, remained with him for a very long time. Alex Millar, fourteen years of age, did not know it at the time, but he was becoming a man, and meeting, for the first time, a problem, a delightful problem, but a problem which would remain for the rest of his life.
He remained in the hospital for several more days, falling easily into ward routine. He was always awakened around, it seemed to him, five in the morning, when he was sound asleep. This was to receive an injection to help him sleep, which always seemed to Alex to be a totally pointless waste of time. He had breakfast in bed, and on the third day was allowed out of bed for lunch, which was eaten with the other patients around a big table in the middle of the ward. Most of the day was spent in lying on his bed reading, and he finished a complete book in two days. It was by Enid Blyton, and he thought, even as he read it, that it was too junior for him. Still, his mother had bought it, and Alex felt it would be disloyal to criticise her choice, at least to her.
His parents visited him each day, about five in the evening, and stayed for an hour, or so. On the Wednesday, they brought his younger sister, Patsy, a not very popular move from Alex’s viewpoint, as she sat on the end of his bed, eating his grapes, and saying nothing. Once or twice Alex tried to stop her, but she pulled away from him and shielded his grapes with her body.
“It’s all right”, his mother chided him, “You have plenty, and she is younger than you anyway.”
The logic of this approach was lost on Alex, particularly as Patsy finished the lot, and began looking around for something else. Fortunately, the ward bell sounded, indicating the end of visiting time. “Just in time,” he told himself, “the little pest would have eaten every single thing I have.” His mother kissed him and his father shook his hand, which both considered the proper, and manly, way for men to say farewell. His mother tried to get Patsy to kiss him, which she steadfastly refused to do. This was at least one blessing, thought Alex. As his parents, and sister, left him, Patsy turned round as she reached the double doors to the ward. She made an ugly face, and stuck out her tongue. As his mother was looking, he was unable to reciprocate, but smiled instead. “I’ll get you for that,” he said to himself.
On Thursday afternoon, they told him he could leave on Friday morning, and informed his parents that evening when they visited, blessedly without Patsy. Alex was very excited at the prospect of going home, even though he had only been away for four days. He spent the rest of the afternoon pacing up and down the ward, in the belief that this would strengthen his foot. The exercise, he realised was a bit false, as the offending foot was still padded and bandaged. On the Friday morning about nine o’clock, his doctor, and a little team of students came around, and watched while a nurse removed the dressings. Everyone then examined the sole of his foot with an astonishing degree of interest. The doctor appeared to be very pleased with his handiwork, and indicated, with a pencil, the points that he felt the students should note. Alex was not sure whether he should be pleased or not with all the attention. They left at last, and he was free to inspect his foot for the first time. To his immense horror, there were five holes, each one of which seemed to be perfectly capable of hiding a medium sized marble.
On Friday morning, his mother arrived with a neighbour, Bob Tracey, whose major claim to fame, apart from his reputation as a gambling and drinking man, was that he owned a car. Alex could remember being in a car on only two previous occasions. The first time was during the War, when he had ridden in an open topped Morris, and the second time at his grandmother’s funeral. The thought did occur to him that, if he was not able to walk out of the City hospital, and get on a trolley bus on Friday, his chances of running a mile on Saturday were not very bright. Still, it was not every day that a boy from South Belfast could get a ride in a car. He limped out of the hospital, telling himself that the limp was due to the new dressings, and got into Bob’s Riley. He had always vaguely felt that Rileys must be an Irish made car, because of the name. In later years, when he developed an interest in cars, the news that they were English came as big disappointment to him.
His home seemed, for the first time in his life, to be very small, and he prowled around like a caged beast. Eventually, his father, who was sitting, smoking his pipe, and reading the newspaper, said “Will you, for God’s sake, sit down, or go out, you’re making the place look untidy.”
Alex felt deeply hurt by this; after all, he was the injured person, and had until a couple of hours ago, been a hospital patient. He might even have been close to death, for all his father seemed to care. He only had a light dressing on his foot, which felt stiff, and painful. He would decide on the sports day on Saturday, and even if he could not take part, he could go and watch. He walked to the bottom of the street, and turned left for about six hundred yards before turning right over the railway bridge which led to Windsor Park, where Linfield, and Northern Ireland played their football. He stood on the bridge and looked at the gravely car park, and the succession of wickets painted, or chalked on the walls of the stadium. Many of his better innings had been played there, in that car park, and it was also where he had perfected his off spin bowling. Local rules dictated that a hit into the football ground counted as six and out, and many of his pals had decided that Alex was not Roy Tattersall, as he claimed, but could be safely hit. Well, six and out suited him, and if he had to buy wickets, that was a fair price. And, after all, it was also the job of the offending batsman to climb over the wall to fetch the ball. This was usually a fairly easy exercise, except on those occasions when a groundsman objected to the presence of the junior cricketer, and his exit was much quicker than his entry.
He had started off being Brian Statham, who bowled very quickly for Lancashire, and England, but had discovered very rapidly that everyone else wanted to be Brian Statham, or Fred Trueman when they bowled, so he had changed to Tattersall, who also played for Lancashire and England, to be different. Batting was another matter entirely. Most boys were Len Hutton, and a few were Denis Compton. Alex had to be different here also, and had plumped for John Ikin of Lancashire. He supported Lancashire as he believed Manchester was in Lancashire, and he had got a love of Manchester United from his Dad, who was not very enthusiastic about much else.
He stood on the bridge for a long time, thinking. It might be better to miss the mile, and stick to the sprints. There had been no stitches in his foot, so there was nothing to burst open. All the same, he told himself, better to drop out of the mile, just in case. He also thought of the nurse with the blonde hair and nice breasts. He wished he knew her name. He had a strange feeling of sadness, at leaving the hospital. He had made friends there, and the nurses were nice. He wondered if they would allow him to go back to pay a visit. He walked down into the football car park, which on other occasions passed for Lords, or Trent Bridge, or Old Trafford, and walked home by a different route.
His father looked up as he entered. “I only said go outside, not to leave home. Your mother was worried about you, but I told her you’d be back in time for your tea.”
Alex smiled, “I only went for a walk, to test my foot.”
“You’re lucky it was your foot they operated on, and not your head.”
Saturday was windy and squalling rain. It was dry, however, when he got to Celtic Park, on the Donegall Road. Belfast Celtic had played their soccer here until 1949, when they had quit football after an attack on their players, during a game. The ground was starting to show signs of neglect, with grass and weeds growing up in the terracing. He sought out his form master, and told him that he would have to pull out of the mile, because of his foot, but would compete in the sprints. Alex felt pretty certain that the master did not know the true nature of the problem with his foot, or he would have forbidden him to run in anything. He ran in the 100 yards, but felt very sluggish and could do no better than third. His foot was not hurting a lot, and he felt much better in the 220 yards. Coming around the last bend he was third, but gathered some speed from somewhere and finished first. He also finished quite breathless. His house relay team also won the 220 yards relay, and although he ran only second on his leg, it was a good result. His house finished second overall, which was again very good. He consoled himself at his partial disappointment with the thought that he would be back again next year, and the foot would be OK then.
Alex was tired, but happy, as he collected his prizes, which included a tennis racket for winning the 220. It was something he kept for many years, but never used. It was wood framed, and contained in a wood press with little wing nuts to keep the frame straight.
His foot hurt like hell!
The school year drifted to a close. He had sat for, and been successful in his school exams, and was awarded the Junior Schools Certificate. His results had been good enough for him to pass into the senior school, and to be in the second class in the higher school. The summer seemed to last forever, and seemed to be filled by an endless round of playing cricket, and football. The time of year had little to do with which game was played: it all depended on how he and his mates felt. Alex was a Catholic, obviously because his parents were Catholics, but the family lived in an overwhelmingly Protestant area. As far as Alex knew, there were only four or five Catholic families in the street, and the street had about one hundred and twenty houses. Because of this, just about all his friends were Protestant, boys, but increasingly girls, as well. No one seemed to care very much, one way or the other, and in all his memory, he could not recall any problems his religion had caused him.
Both his parents were Republican, and Alex remembered a time when he felt the same. He was only ten or eleven at the time, and on two or three occasions his mother had taken him to watch parades on the Falls Road. During one of these he had picked up a small Irish tricolour, that someone had dropped, and had smuggled it home, rolled up and hidden up his sleeve. He had felt very daring, especially when walking past an RUC policeman in the Donegall Road.
He was aware that, as he approached fifteen, he no longer felt this way. He was not completely sure when, or how, this change had come about, but was certain that he knew why. From eleven years of age he had attended his present Catholic boys’ grammar school on the Antrim Road, which had a mixture of teachers, all male, but about half of them priests. Alex had never in his life had to distinguish between one kind of priest and another. Those at his local church wore black jackets and trousers, as well as their dog collars. Those at school, he thought they were Jesuits, wore long dress like garments that swept the ground as they walked. In his four years at school, Alex had grown to hate and despise the priests, who were harsh and cruel, to a degree that the ordinary non-clerical teachers were not.
They were, almost to a man, virulently anti British, or English, which was the name they preferred. All that was English and/or Protestant was bad; all that was Irish and Catholic was good. Even as a child, Alex found this difficult to accept. All his mates were Protestant. The only English person he knew was his cousin, and he was not only a good friend but also a Catholic. On one occasion, in class, he pointed out to the priest teaching Religious Knowledge, that he had read that there were five million Catholics in England, which was more than the entire population of Ireland, north and south of the border. Were those people bad because they were English, or good because they were Catholics? He did not get an answer to the question, but got three strokes of the strap on each hand, for being impertinent. He became very bitter about this, as he did not know, and the priest did not explain, what he had done wrong. The learned father certainly did not attempt to answer the question.
By the time his fifteenth birthday had arrived, Alex was convinced he was British, and identified more with his Protestant friends in the street, than with his Catholic friends at school. This caused him problems, and he frequently had fights at school because of it. As he was very keen on cricket, through playing it at home, he once suggested that it should be played at school. He was firmly told that cricket was an English game and was not played at the school, only Gaelic football, and hurling. His attempt to point out that football, or soccer, was also an English game, and was played at school, met little success. He had difficulty with this logic, and that Shakespeare was taught, as he, too, had been English, and although Alex was not certain, probably a Protestant as well. In his studies of the famous Bard, he particularly enjoyed Henry the Fifth, and had even gone in a school party to watch Olivier’s version of the play on screen. He and all the others had been obliged to learn King Henry’s famous speech before Harfleur, the one that commenced “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, or fill up the wall with our English dead.” If the English and all things English were bad, why was he made to learn this kind of thing? He was puzzled.
There were never any fights away from school, and he was happily accepted on 12th July at the top of the street, on the Lisburn Road, watching the Orangemen marching to Finaghy. He found the parades very enjoyable, with the waving banners and flags, and the music from the various bands, brass, silver, and bagpipes. From somewhere, or other, he got a photograph of the new young Queen, and had bought a frame for it, putting it up in his bedroom. Neither his mother, nor particularly, his father agreed with his views, and were presumably disappointed at their son’s holding them, but to their credit, did little to try to change things. His father took to referring to the Queen as “Your girlfriend.”
During the summer of 1953, an event occurred which was to change his life forever. After an interval of nearly ten years, his parents had a fourth, and last child. It became increasingly obvious that he would not be able to stay at school much longer, as his father now had six mouths to feed on one wage packet. It would be the following year before this event translated into his leaving school, and getting a job. In the meantime, the long summer continued, and Alex and his friends followed, breathlessly, the Ashes series against the Australians unfold. The first four Tests were drawn, usually in Australia’s favour, but the fifth, and last, went easily to England. There was, of course, no television for most people, and the series was followed on the radio, and the voices of John Arlott and Brian Johnson became familiar to all. The heroes of the day were copied in the Test matches played in the car park of Windsor Park, or on the grass at Musgrave or Marlborough Parks. Boys were Alex Bedser one day, Len Hutton the next, or Willie Watson or Trevor Bailey saving the game at Lords. It seemed that in the games played in the Windsor Park car park, England always won! It also seemed that the sun always shone, although Alex was certain it must have rained sometimes.
School restarted in September, and Alex duly returned, without enthusiasm, as he knew he would not complete the academic year. This, inevitably, led to a serious decline in the standard of his work, and occasional interesting discussions with his teachers. He was unable to tell them what he, himself, already knew, that he would be leaving. He tried to appreciate the struggle that his parents were having in simply maintaining their standard of living, but at fifteen, such matters are not easily understood. He was vaguely disappointed that he would not be able to go to University, as a number of the older boys were reported, in the school magazine, as having done.
There was something else, which he did not realise at the time, but was to grow aware of as he got older. Alex had been an altar boy for some years, an undertaking for which his mother had volunteered him. He, himself, would never have thought of wanting to do the job in a million years, but having got it, he did his best to understand the Latin at Mass, and to make the correct responses. He had started at the age of eleven, before he had started to hate the priests at school, but now he was fifteen, he had a deep dislike for most of those holy fathers he met at the local church. There was little in serving which appealed to him, apart from the occasional half crown which the best man usually tipped the servers at weddings. This sometimes also happened at funerals, but it struck Alex as somehow immoral to accept money from people whose relatives had died.
During the priest’s sermon at Mass, the altar servers were required to half sit, half lay at the altar steps, in what he supposed was a “reclining posture.” At these time, as he was usually bored, and his mind wandered. He examined, in minute detail, all of the carvings on the wooden altar, and found, to his horror, that many of them assumed weird sexual forms. He was having enough problems in that direction at the time, and imagined that he might be going mad, or certainly to hell.
His mother was a very religious and devout woman, who clearly found pleasure and pride in having her son serve on the altar. It was only gradually that Alex appreciated how devout she was, and to realise that her ambition was for Alex to become a priest. This thought filled him with horror, not only because most of the priests he had met seemed to him to be Fascist bastards, but because he was, by the day, finding more and more interest in girls. The birth of his baby brother had necessitated he should leave school, which meant he could not even think of going to university, and his mother’s hopes of her son entering the priesthood died accordingly. When Alex eventually became aware of this, he considered that his antipathy to the priesthood would undoubtedly have been discovered very quickly, and disqualified him. He would have made certain of that!
He had been obliged to take up the Irish language, and although he was fairly adept in French, and Latin, he could summon no interest in Irish. Not surprisingly, at Christmas 1953, he failed the exam, the only occasion in his time at school that this had happened. Not surprisingly, either, he was hauled over the coals by his Irish teacher, a fierce and, to Alex, very unpleasant man, who called into question his application, loyalty, and patriotism. Alex was tempted to inform Father Larkin that he thought Irish was a total waste of everyone’s time, and furthermore, his loyalty was to the Her Majesty the Queen, who did not see the need to speak Irish. Tactfully, he refrained from doing this, telling himself that he would be leaving in a month or two, anyway. He had rarely been tactful in the past, and wondered if this ability to keep his mouth shut was a sign of a growing maturity. Subsequently he came to realise that this had been almost a “one off”, and in most other matters, he found himself unable to keep his opinions to himself.
The winter was enlivened by reading about the English cricket tour to the West Indies, where England, after going two down, managed to square the rubber. He also followed, in company with his father, the fortunes of the young Manchester United football team, under their manager, Matt Busby. At about this time, the team acquired the nickname of the “Busby Babes.”
Cycling began to play a larger part in his life, and he started going out on long rides with some older boys. It was only later that he realised that one of his new-found friends was mostly interested in his sister, Patsy, although Alex could never understand why. On one Sunday, about four or five of the boys all rode to Carlingford, about 50 miles to the south, in the Irish Republic, or Irish Free State, as his father always insisted on calling it. He made the ride, and the return, but only just. He then spent two days in bed recovering. This gave him sufficient time to analyse what had gone wrong. Firstly, the other lads were older than he was, by two or three years, and therefore bigger and stronger. Secondly, they had machines with drop handlebars, thin tyres, and ten gears instead of his three Sturmey Archer gears. The experience was such that he determined never to repeat it. Ollie and Dave continued to call, but he knew that it was not him they really wanted to see.
He began looking around for a job, and delivered papers for a while. He was encouraged into this occupation by an older boy, Stan, who lived in the same street. He had a paper round, and was paid for his efforts. Stan proved to be quite a salesman, because he persuaded three or four other younger boys, as well as Alex, that delivering newspapers was a lot of fun, and he, Stan, was prepared to allow them to help him. In a very short time, Stan was only going to the newspaper shop to collect the papers which he then passed on to his small crew, who delivered them. Stan, graciously, gave each boy sixpence at the end of the week. This scheme continued for several weeks, and might have gone on longer, had not the smallest boy, Trevor, become disenchanted, and discarded his evening newspapers in the garden of the local off licence, where they were eventually discovered. Stan was immediately sacked, without ceremony, and Alex was once more unemployed. He was able to reflect that, for three weeks he had earned his own living. Well not quite, sixpence did not go very far. It did go far enough, however, to buy five Woodbine, or to get one of the older, bigger lads to buy them for him. He took his precious packet, and a box of Swallow matches he borrowed from the house, around to the alley which ran between the backs of the houses. This was called an entry in Belfast, and was just wide enough to take a car. He smoked all five cigarettes in about half an hour, and was thoroughly sick. He vowed never, never, never to smoke again.
As Alex moved past fifteen and into his sixteenth year, he became more and more aware of girls. He did not know much about them, but many of his male fiends were about two years older than him, and they were always willing to share their great knowledge with him and with anyone else who would listen. When he was older himself he realised that much of their boastings was just that, boasting, but he was too naïve at the time to know.
“Sex” was not a word used very much in Belfast in 1953 and 1954. It was not a subject discussed at home, and never spoken about at school, where the only females seen were the women working in the canteen. He wasn’t too sure that he liked the sound of what the older boys were saying, and he didn’t quite know whether to believe them, or not. He formed a crush on Molly, a pretty girl, of about his own age, or a year or so younger, who lived in the next street, and who was a friend of his sister. He went out of his way to walk past her house, or to go to places where she might be. He recorded these events in his diary, as well as the few occasions that he spoke to her. In most circumstances, she ignored him, but appeared very interested in the older boys. On those occasions when Molly visited his house, to see Patsy, they would stop talking if he came near, or lock themselves in the front room, which his parents always called the parlour.
He drifted away from school, in the spring of 1954, at the end of the second term, and started a job at a local brewery. It paid three pounds a week. It was very hard, physical work, and he lasted two weeks before he was sacked. This occurred after an incident when he came close to killing one of his workmates. Beer bottles were washed, dried, and filled on a series of conveyer belts, running the length of the factory, and they ended up on a carousel type of apparatus, where they were labelled. He had worked at all of these jobs without encountering too many problems. After the labelling, the bottles were placed in a gun holster type of pocket, of which a number were fixed to a vertical conveyor belt, which went up through the ceiling to be emptied on the first floor. Alex worked on this, again without problem. The day arrived when he was transferred to the first floor, to off load the rising bottles. He was too slow, and in his first half-hour, three bottles completed the circle without being unloaded, and crashed down to the floor below, exploding like hand grenades. For the second time in his life, he was unemployed, and this time the loss of £3 a week was a more serious loss than sixpence. He was able to take away one useful lesson from all of this. At lunchtime, each employee was given two free bottles of beer, which they all consumed. Alcohol joined cigarettes on Alex’s list of things to avoid.
His father was disappointed that his eldest son was now out of work, but did not hesitate in spreading the word among his associates, primarily those who attended the same church as himself. Before very long Alex started work with a wholesale confectionery company as a trainee salesman, and warehouse assistant. The job was a big step up from the brewery, although the pay was exactly the same. On about three days a week, he worked in the warehouse, receiving and loading boxes and bottles of confectionery, and there were sufficient spillages to provide fodder for his sweet tooth. Alex saw to that.
On the other two days, he went out helping on the van, and saw many more parts of Northern Ireland than he would have done on his bike. All of this worked well for over a year, and Alex dutifully took home his unopened pay packet every Friday evening to his mother, who kept two pounds and ten shillings, and gave him ten shillings back. His needs were few, and he found that ten “bob” was more than sufficient for his needs. He took to buying the Belfast Telegraph each evening, and carrying it home sticking out of his hip pocket, as he imagined a working man would do. The job lasted in a fairly pleasant, undemanding way until the late spring of 1955. One Friday morning he was asked if he would work the following day, the Saturday.
“I’m sorry,” said Alex, “but I can’t.”
“I’m playing cricket.”
His boss looked hard at him; “Your job comes before a game. Cancel the cricket.”
“I can’t do that,” replied Alex, “I’ve given my word.”
“Please yourself. Make up your mind, work tomorrow, or leave.” His boss walked away.
Alex thought about this for the rest of the day, and at 5pm went to see Mr O’Mara. “I still can’t work tomorrow, sorry.”
“That’s fine, Alex. Don’t bother coming in on Monday. You’re sacked. I will speak to your father on Sunday.”
And Alex became unemployed yet again, but on the Saturday he played cricket. He was out second ball for a duck, did not bowl and dropped a catch. Even at that age he observed that virtue did not always bring its own reward.
It would be fair to say that his father was not very pleased at what his son had done, but dealt with it much more calmly than Alex had imagined that he would.
“I’ve done my best for you. Find your own jobs in the future.”
This proved to be more difficult than either of them had believed, and Alex took to reading the Situations Vacant section in the Belfast Telegraph. For probably the first time in his almost seventeen years, he experienced prejudice. Interviewers and potential employers always asked the same question, “What school did you go to?”
In most other parts of the United Kingdom this would have been a fairly normal thing to ask, but in Northern Ireland in 1955, it meant, “What religion are you?”
This worked two ways, in favour of, and to the detriment of, both Catholics, and Protestants, depending on who was asking the question. Very few employers, at that time, went across the sectarian line to find their workers. Alex was unsuccessful, either with Catholic or Protestant employers. What he really wanted to do was to join the Royal Air Force, and train to be a pilot.
After being out of work for several weeks, he was sent on a daily basis to a vocational training school for the unemployed, where a disinterested man tried to give his charges a love of woodwork. In Alex’s case, he failed. He went every morning, had a very good free lunch, and walked home, to save the bus fare which he had been given at the school. One day, he found that he was passing the Royal Naval recruiting office, and after some discussion inside, Alex Millar signed up as a Junior Electrician’s Mate, Second Class (Boy entrant). His career in the Navy lasted less than a day, as his father, after he had exploded, refused to sign the papers. “Over my dead body”, was one of the politer remarks he made.
Fortunately, not long after the Navy incident, he did get another job, as a Dispatch Clerk in a wholesale hardware warehouse, which was in the centre of the town. Again his pay was three pounds a week. He was granted a pay rise to four pounds a week after six months, and was disappointed to find that he was required to pay sixpence income tax on this. At the time he was unaware that this was the first step on a long and increasingly uphill road.
This job lasted for almost a year and a half, and Alex enjoyed it immensely. His job was to receive orders from other shops in all other parts of the country, and make up the orders, by “picking” the items required. The “picked” items were placed together, and Alex would decide whether to dispatch them by the company’s own van, or call in contract transport. This new job was a much more satisfactory position for Alex, for many reasons. Firstly, there was a shop attached to the warehouse, and there were two girls employed there as assistants. Nancy was very pretty, but was flat chested, while Margaret had a huge chest, but was ugly. Once again he reflected on the unfairness of the world.
The place seemed to employ equal numbers of Catholics, and Protestants, and no one seemed to give a damm. Of most interest to Alex was a man called Gerry, who drove a lorry for British Road Services, one of the transport companies that served his company. Gerry had served as a sergeant in the RUR, the Royal Ulster Rifles, during the war, and had no hesitation in regaling Alex with his adventures in Italy. Already ideas were forming in Alex Millar’s mind.
Alex decided to join the Army, and would not make the same mistake he had made with the Navy; he would wait until he was eighteen and old enough to join without his father’s permission. So he bided his time, picked and dispatched his hardware items, flirted with the shop girls, without success, and played cricket, again without success, all the summer of 1955. These careful, and secret, plans were thrown into some confusion in the early part of 1956 when he met Sandra. Sandra was the daughter of an RUC police inspector, and was Protestant. Neither of these facts affected either Alex, or Sandra, and they went to the cinema and dances together for several months.
Their friendship was still going on as the new cricket season started, although it had been restricted to kissing either in the back row of the cinema, or outside her house. Although this was all very innocent, and what the majority of seventeen year olds were doing, it became too much for Sandra’s father, who came to the door one Saturday evening, and invited the young man in. Alex had never met a policeman before, to talk to, but Inspector Kirkland seemed very pleasant, spoke to Alex as an adult, did not query his intentions towards Sandra, and never inquired as to the school to which Alex had gone. However, it did strike Alex that his friendship with Sandra was moving rather more quickly than he liked, and in a direction he was not yet ready to move. Further, Mr Kirkland did not exactly approve of Alex’s plan to become a soldier, and suggested a career in the RUC instead. Alex agreed to consider this.
While he was considering, or, to be accurate, not considering a job in the RUC, Alex changed cricket clubs, and moved from the east end of Belfast, where he had played two seasons, to Dunmurry, a leafy, affluent and largely Protestant suburb, situated between the city, and Lisburn. Here he found better pitches, a better standard of cricket, and many more pretty girls, including many who seemed to enjoy the company of young men dressed in white. Sandra and her family, and the suspected aspirations of both, quietly faded away.
Alex became eighteen during the cricket season, and at the end of it, he joined the Army, as a driver. He could not drive, but was told that this was unimportant, as the Army would train him. He went home and told his parents, and to his surprise, they both took it pretty well. His mother seemed to be pleased that he had, at last, got a job where he had some prospects, and was not destined to push bamboo canes around Northern Ireland for the rest of his life. His father was a little less sanguine.
“So, you have gone and taken the King’s shilling?”
“Queen’s shilling, I think, Dad.”
“Same thing. It’s your life.”
Nothing further was said on the matter, and in October, he moved to England to start training.
Maggie Connor was joined by her husband. He kissed her gently on the head.
“Hi, darling, how’s it going?”
She smiled. “I’m OK, but,” she indicated the bed, “ no change.”
Danny Connors went up to the figure on the bed. He had always liked his father in law, and considered him a mate, more than anything else. “No change at all?”
“No, not really. Sometimes he twitches, like he was dreaming, but that’s all.”
“Perhaps he’s reliving his childhood.”
She nodded. “Perhaps he is. Let’s go home.”