“Who was that you were with?”
“Was one of them that Connor?”
“Dad! Be reasonable, will you? He’s in my tutorial. I can’t just ignore him.”
Eileen pulled herself up into the cab of the lorry and settled into the passenger seat. She pulled the Belfast Telegraph out from under her bottom, took one glance at the headlines and stuffed the paper into the space behind her seat. Say nothing, say nothing.
“Bloody hunger strikers. Bobby bloody Sands. You’d think they’d learn.”
“Some people never learn, Dad.” Not in Northern Ireland. “Thanks for this;
better than freezing my bum off on the bus.”
“Had to do an extra run to the mills. Is that flat of yours warm enough?”
“Yeah, fine. Toasty. Can’t believe this snow, though. Talk about deep and
crisp and even! Poor beasts, freezing their butts off.”
“Better out in the field than trampling through their own shit in the byre.
They fairly get through the feed, though; this is my second trip to town this week. How did you go in that essay?”
“Got a distinction.”
Her father beamed. “A distinction, eh? And how many bloody words
did you have to write to get that?”
“God Almighty, that’s more than I’d use in a month!”
She laughed. Keep him happy. First in the family to go to university:
proud of you, girl. When she’d been accepted, he’d told everybody.
God only knows where she got the brains, he’d told them; left school
at fifteen, he did. Shouldering another bag of meal, he’d swung it
up to the grizzled farmer standing on the trailer hitched to his tractor.
Not like in our day, hey boy? You learned your letters and you learned
your numbers and then you earned your living. No two ways about it.
None of these fancy grants and scholarships for us, boy!
The windscreen wipers ticked like manic metronomes.
Crusts of frost rimmed the windows. At the Army checkpoint,
soldiers squinted against the wind and stamped their feet; high shouldered, they issued terse commands which misted up
in their faces.
“God help those poor lads, out all hours of the day and night in
Poor lads. Tell that to Connor’s little brother, still hopping round
the children’s ward.
“They didn’t have to join the Army.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She flicked the radio on. A newsreader’s voice blared. She glanced
at her Dad’s frowning profile, flicked it off and knotted her hands
firmly in her lap. Here we go: the Situation. It’s the Situation, the
bloody Situation. Specially when he’s had a few, specially when he
stands up in front of the latest crop of Young Farmers, specially
when his daughter turns on the news.
Barricades. Bombs. No Pope here, and no bloody wonder. It used
to be, he’d at least ask: what do you think of the Situation? Used to
be he voted for the Alliance party. Not now. Now it’s just round them
up and shoot the whole damn lot of them, it’s the only thing they
understand. And now he’s got another Situation.
“Whole bloody university full of lawyers and doctors. And what
does she do? Slums it with a poet. A Papish bloody poet from the
back streets of Belfast!”
Which was worse, the back streets or the poetry? He said it like
she’d betrayed him, like she’d gone behind his back, when she hadn’t.
Or not until she had to. She’d brought Connor all the way out on the
bus, for goodness sake, just to meet him. And the stupidest thing
was how well they’d got on. In the byre, Connor had helped load
the trailer with bales of hay; on the tractor, he’d asked intelligent
questions about hay versus silage and Belted Galloways versus Black
Angus. On the way home, her Dad had dropped them off so they could
walk back by The Six Mile Water and she could show him the ducks.
There were swans sometimes too, but she’d always preferred the ducks.
Standing on the bridge together, Connor squeezed her shoulder and
grinned. “Hope is a duck … bottoms up!”
His eyes always seemed bluer when he laughed.
Here we go. Her Dad’s jaw clenched, his eyebrows bent and bristling:
the I.R. bloody A in their bloody balaclavas, didn’t know which was
worse, them or the ones in Dublin in their three piece bloody suits …
Say nothing. There’s no point, you know there’s no point. No: can’t.
Really, really can’t. Just sit and listen. Can’t.
Gerrymanders. Peaceful protest. Civil rights.
By the time they reached the Hill Road, the silence in the cab lay thick
as the snow on the hedges. Her father shifted in his seat, rolling the broad
shoulders that once upon a time had been her horsey: hi yo Silver, away!
Broad freckled hands were clamped tight around the steering wheel.
Some of the freckles were liver spots now; the stubble on his jaw was white.
A thin blue vein meandered across his temple. Pressing her lips together, she
blinked; no use crying. Like he said, no two ways about it. Not now, not ever. Connor’s mother was just the same; or, like Connor said, unjust the same. No use saying if Dad had been born Catholic, or Connor’s mother Protestant that they would have kicked against the Situation every bit as hard, just with the other foot. No use saying it wasn’t their fault. Whose fault was it? Try again.
“It’s supposed to be the worst winter for twenty five years. How long have you and Mum been married?”
No answer; no thaw.
The cattle were huddled along the hedge. Across the bleak white plateau
of field, ears flattened and tails clamped to bony backsides, trudged
the donkeys. Pretty Polly was in front, mushroom coloured, biblically
meek and mild. Nudge her with your heels and off she’d trot. Rub her ears
and she’d nuzzle you. Behind her was Poppy, Roman nosed, the colour of black pepper. Nudge her with your heels and she’d hump her back, either buck or bolt under the trees to scrape you off. Or just lie down on the spot and refuse to budge.
Except that one time with Dad and Connor. She’d jumped on Poppy’s back,
hoping she would bolt, wanting to show how well she could hold on.
No chance. Black ears flattened, she bent her knees and was down and rolling
over. She scrambled to her feet, looking up at her Dad and Connor standing side by side and laughing. Absurdly, ridiculously happy, she laughed with them, the two men
she loved most in the world.
Connor pulled out his mouth organ and waggled his eyebrows. He drew in
a deep breath and blew. Poppy shot to her feet and bolted, braying in comic outrage.
Her Dad slapped Connor’s shoulder. “That’ll learn her, eh?
That’ll learn her!”
“Which one?” Connor grinned.
She brushed the snow off her jacket. All right, it was going be all right…
After lunch, her mother brought out old photographs of Belfast, the house
she grew up in and her old school, where she’d taught piano before she
married Dad and moved out to the farm. She laughed when she heard about
Poppy and the mouth organ and Dad asked Connor what tunes he could play.
‘The Sash my Father Wore’, now, can you play ‘the Sash’? Connor shook
his head, said he didn’t know it.
“How can you not know the Sash, son? Sure you hear it every twelfth of July.”
“Not very keen on marching songs.”
“Are you not? Well, what do you like?”
Connor played ‘Bold Fenian Men.’
She stared out the lorry window. The donkeys, the beasts in the white fields
blurred into each other. She blinked and pointed.
“They’re the ones it’s a pity of. No choice.”
“Listen you here, my girl: there’s many a young lad joins the Army purely
because it’s a decent job with good prospects …”
“Yeah, hold an Armalite rifle steady, great prospects… of killing people!”
“Killing people? Don’t talk: what about the I.R. bloody A?”
“What about the Ulster fucking Freedom Fighters?”
The word hung in the air like a gun shot. Silence. More snow.
Stupid, stupid idea, coming home for the weekend. Stupid bloody Ken,
double booking himself… still. The Loughside paid its bar men well.
It’d get Connor on to their casual list. She could have – should have –
just gone along, sat in a corner and read till his shift finished…
Oh God. Christmas coming. What are they going to do? Now? Ever?
“Watch out, Dad!”
Her father wrenched the steering wheel and the lorry skidded around the
church corner. The minister’s cat scrammed up the wall.
There’d be no talking now. Just her mother fidgeting and passing food and
being nice and her Dad sitting in front of the TV with a face like a hatchet.
She could ring Stuart, he’d be going into town, he could drop her off at the
Hotel. That should please her Dad, Stuart being a Young Farmer, Stuart being
a decent young man… Christ, if he only knew he was gay…
Stuart wasn’t in.
Dinner was as expected. Her Dad passed the salt, the pepper, worked his
way steadily through steak and kidney pie. Did not want dessert. Pushed
his chair back, went through to the lounge, switched the television on and
sat in his seat, mouth zippered, arms crossed. Jess trotted through, sat at his
feet and barked. He picked her up, let her circle and curl in his lap, ruffled
her soft spaniel coat.
“Can I make you a cup of coffee, Dad?”
He hesitated, then shrugged. “If you like. Milk. Two sugar.”
Milk, two sugar. Right. Take it through.
On TV, the news presenter was looking down at his desk. He looked up
and cleared his throat. “News just to hand. A bomb has exploded at the
“Damned IRA den…”
The coffee bled all over the carpet. The cup rolled under the table.
“Connor! That’s where Connor is!”
Dialing, dialing: hotel, home, flat, friend’s flat. Give it a couple of minutes.
Try again. One minute, two… no answer. No answer no answer no answer.
Go to bed. Rage, rage against the dark…poetry, poetry… except where did raging ever get anybody?
In the morning, she sat at the far end of the kitchen table, bruise-eyed and mute.
Her Dad scraped his chair back.
“Come and give us a hand feeding the beasts, pet. Take your mind off it.”
She shook her head.
“Look, it’s a big hotel. He might have been nowhere near it. They’re
saying it wasn’t a big one.” He touched her hair. “Nothing you can do
this time of morning, now is there? Come on.” He fetched her coat,
stood holding it out.
They tossed broken bales across the snow around the long wooden troughs
of grain mixed with chaff, snow trampled by hooves, stained by piss and
shit. She stood staring across the rank fug of cattle, snorting, shouldering,
“Where are the donkeys, Dad?”
“But they’re always first here.”
“Dam greedy wee beggars. They’ll turn up.”
“I’m going to look.”
“Hang on, let me finish…”
Tramping up the hill, tramping down. Tripping and falling, hunkered
down in the snow, sobbing. Her Dad heaved her back on to her feet.
“For God’s sake, child, do you want to catch your death of cold?
Here, give us your hands …” He rubbed them and pulled her close.
“You rang his home number, didn’t you?”
“They’ve probably not let any of them home yet. You can’t read anything
She burrowed her face into his coat, then pushed blindly away, blundering
towards the path that circled the bottom of the hill. Abruptly she stopped,
clapping her hands either side of her head.
“The donkeys. What if they’ve frozen to death?”
Her Dad had stopped too, but not for her. He was smiling. “Well, well.”
“What? What is it?”
“Over there, see those holes? Just over yonder, see? Side of the path, just
in against the hillside?”
With a grunt, he plunged into the snowdrift. Gloved hands shoveled great
flurries of snow into the air.
Four stiff shaggy points: ears. Donkeys’ ears. She screamed.
“They’re dead! Buried alive!”
“Dead? Not at all, not a bit of them, their breath melts holes, see?
Blow holes. Depends how long they’ve been there of course…”
Poppy’s head was out; she shook her snow laden head, bared her
yellow teeth and sneezed.
“They’re alive! Dad, Dad, they’re alive!”
She dived in beside him, scrabbling and scraping.
Eyelashes spiked with frost; long whiskery icicles where the snow
melted by their breath had frozen. On her knees, red nosed and red
cheeked, Eileen giggled.
Her Dad went for the horse float. She waited, stamping, rubbing ears,
necks, backs, kissing foreheads. Her Dad tossed her a halter; she led
Poppy after Polly up the ramp and on to the straw. He let her stay in the
float with them while he drove home. In the stable, she found hessian
sacks and some old blankets, kept rubbing, hugging, rubbing as hard as
she could. Her Dad made up two big buckets of mash; the donkeys plunged
their heads in.
He put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned in close. They watched,
listening to the sound of munching, breathing in the smell of damp hessian,
warm mash, clean straw.
“He’s not dead, Dad. He’s not. I know he’s not.”
Her mother didn’t say a word about the snow they tramped in. Still no
answer; she left another message. She pulled the chair up next to the
phone, sat staring, willing it to ring.
It did. She sprang away, hand to mouth, shaking her head, moaning.
“Dad. Dad. Please.”
He lifted it and held it out. She shook her head harder, covered her face.
He answered. “Hello?”
She lowered her hands, pressed them palm to palm. Her eyes never left
“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. ”
Yes what, yes what?
Her Dad replaced the phone very carefully, his big hand heavy on the
receiver. She grabbed the hand, grabbed both of them, tugging urgently.
“He’s alive. He’s alive. Tell me he’s alive?”
Her Dad nodded. She gasped ecstatically and flung her arms round him.
“See? I knew, I just knew!”
She spun away, hugging herself, spinning till she staggered.
“He is alive. Yes. He is alive. But. Come here, dear. Come here.”
Her Dad laid his hands gently over her shoulders. “The explosion:
he’s been blinded. He’s in intensive care.”
She backed away, banged into the kitchen table and grabbed it.
Her Dad started towards her, but she shook her head, turned and
bolted out the back door.
An icy gale whipped tree tops, clanged corrugated strips of metal.
She ran across the howl of empty yard, yanked the stable door wide
and slammed it behind her. Leaning back against it, she pressed the
heels of her hands hard against her eyeballs. The world lurched and
lunged, blind and black and random, so fucking random …
The donkeys were lying in the straw. Their ears were soft and floppy
and warm. She squeezed in between them. Polly sleepily licked her
hand. Alive, alive –o-o…
Her Dad was waiting at the end of the ward. “Well? Well? ”
She lifted her chin. “One eye’s gone. But he can see out of the other.
He’ll have almost full vision again in it.”
She gave herself up to the bear hug, the warmth, the kindness.
But as she followed her Dad across the car park, she could almost see
the speech balloon above his head: one eyed Papish bloody poet …
“I went downtown while he was having the tests. Just to get out,
you know? Just to walk about. Went to Australia House.”
“Sunny Australia, eh? Do with a bit of bloody sunshine round here,
“We’ve been talking about it, Dad. Ever since. Connor and me.
The reason I went to Australia House was to hand in the forms.
We’re going to emigrate.”
“We’re emigrating, Dad.”
“That’s what I thought you said. Child dear, you’re not serious!”
“Yes we are. As soon as we can.”
“Now listen, dear, it’s been a terrible tragedy, terrible. You’ve been
worried sick, we all have. D’you think I don’t know that? No time
to go making decisions. I’m sure Connor doesn’t expect you…”
“He doesn’t expect anything. That was one of the very first things
he said when he came round. He said he’d understand if I wanted to
split up, that he wasn’t going to hold me to anything, that I had my own
life to lead. ”
“Did he now? God help him, he’s a good lad…”
“Yes. But you know what I said back? I said the only way we’d ever
split up was if we stayed here. And then smiled that crookedy grin of
his and said; don’t tell me: you want to take me away from all this.
That’s right, I said. That’s just right.
And then he just took my hand and we sat for a while. Till he nodded too.
I’m sorry, Dad. But you said it yourself. The Situation’s not going to change,
or not any time soon. We only get one life, Dad. ”