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Gerry McCullough   Contributor -- Ireland





                                                   







Gerry McCullough, born in North Belfast, graduated from Queen’s University with a BA Honours in English Literature and Philosophy, and an MA in English Literature  She has had just under thirty short stories published, two in anthologies.

In 2005, her story Primroses won the Cuirt International Award for New Writers.

  In 2006 she was runner up in the Ireland’s Own Open Writing Competition.

In 2008 she was short listed in the Brian Moore Short Story Award.

Sometime later this year her adult novel, Not the End of the World, a comic fantasy, will be published by Gullion Media.



 




1988 in Ballystravey
 

 

                  

Cool sandy grass patches, rough under her bare toes. 

Pebbles.  

Bits of broken shell that hurt, but not badly. 

That was how she remembered the place.

Mostly there was a cold wind, lifting the sand in skiffs round her feet. 

Other times, she could remember the sun blazing hot on her shoulder-blades, and she capering about on the beach, flinging the big coloured beach ball for Daddy and young Tommy to catch. 

Piggy in the middle, that was what they'd played, she'd have been about six or seven, maybe.

A dozen years ago. Near enough.

 Sheila gave a shiver and pulled her denim jacket tighter.   The wind was cold today.  She jumped up and down, flapping her arms. 

The fellas were late.

Last night it was cold outside the bank.  Dark, as well.  If there was one thing she hated, had always hated, it was waiting around in the cold.  Some girls wouldn't stand for it, and no wonder.

 Her auntie's cottage was just up that loaning.  They used to stay there in the summer.

It was years since she'd been there, not since auntie Beattie went to Markie's in Australia to live there.

Markie was Beattie's youngest, and always the pet, but it had been a bit of a nine days wonder to the family for Beattie, who was always so set in her ways, to take off for the other side of the world. 

The cottage was sold. 

Sheila'd never heard who got it.

One summer there had been a heatwave. 

Shelia came out into the garden before breakfast was ready.  She could feel the heat cutting into her.

There was a bee buzzing round one of Auntie Beattie's red roses. 

Sheila stared at it. It was fatter than any bee she had ever seen.

It was bright coloured, with black and yellow stripes.  Pretty to look at.  Sort of furry, maybe velvety.

Would it sting her if she didn't move away?

The roses were a deep, dark red.  Crimson, that was called.

Sheila knew the colours from her school paint-box.  The brighter red, like blood, was called scarlet.

The roses had a strong smell.   The heat made it stronger.

The bee started to move away from the flower, hovering around in mid-air. 

Sheila was frightened. 

Was it coming to sting her?

With a swift movement of her hand she knocked it to the ground and stamped on its body.  When she lifted her foot in the brown sandal, the bee was moving about.

She had to stamp again and again before it was dead.

Afterwards she felt sick, but when Mammy asked her why she didn't want any breakfast, she wouldn't tell her.

Bees were harmless, Daddy always said.  It was wasps you needed to look out for. Wasps would sting you if they saw you anywhere near. 

But a bee would leave you alone if you didn't touch it.

 

There were smooth, round pebbles on the beach. Sheila picked one up and skimmed it across the surface of the water, counting the bounces the way she and Tommy used to do.

Six, that was pretty good.

"Sheila!"

 There they were at last, running over the beach towards her, Davy and his friend with the ginger hair.

"What kept you?"

Davy spoke quickly, not answering the question, tripping over his words the way he always did.

"Come on, we haven't time to hang about.  Have you got the key?"

"It's in my pocket."

She dug it out, handing it to him. 

"Over this way. You'll have to hop the stream."

They followed her over the sand, scuffling about and shoving each other like kids. 

Davy was carrying the big sack. 

The other fella had a satchel, more like a school bag than anything else.

 "Up here."

The loaning looked neglected. There were brambles and thistles.  Shelia was glad she had her jeans on.

She caught her hand on one of the thorns, and sucked at the scratch. It would be sore tomorrow.

"Is it much further?"

 "Just a step."

The cottage looked smaller than she remembered.  The garden, gigantic in memory, was hardly more than a patch.

Shelia pushed open the gate, and Davy went in past her. He had the key out ready.

"Get in, quick, the both of you.  Dear knows who might be passing any minute."

The door creaked badly.

"Sit down on the floor, Sheila," Davy ordered, "and keep well out of sight of the windows, now.  Billy and me's going down into the cellar to see where we can put this stuff.  The less you know about it, the better."

The floor was covered in dust.  Auntie Beattie's big sofa and the two soft chairs were still there, looking faded and scruffy. 

Sheila remembered Beattie sitting in the evenings, just before bed-time, in the one nearest the fire. 

Talking about the Fenians.   What they were up to now.  How they were taking over the place, and no-one to stop them.

"Now, Beattie," Mammy said in her soft voice, "what harm have they ever done you?"

"Harm!" Beattie exploded.  "What harm, you're saying, and Dublin rule just round the corner!  If we didn't have the big man to stand up to them, we'd be under the South long ago."

Even Daddy, who didn't often say much, joined in with his sister to say, "Beattie's right, Sadie.  The country's in a bad way, and somebody needs to stand up to the Fenians before things is worse."

"Hush, Tommy!" Mammy said sharply. "Don't use words like that.  Sheila, it's past your bed-time."

Sheila was puzzled. 

Why did Mammy not want her to hear? 

Sure, at school, everybody said those sort of things all the time. 

Even the teachers, when they were in a good mood and ready for a chat. 

On a Friday afternoon when all the sums were done. 

Everybody knew it was the truth, so what was the use of Mammy saying it wasn't?

Davy Craig sat behind her in school and pulled her hair.  Sheila didn't mind, but sometimes it hurt.

There was one time when she couldn't help squealing. 

The teacher came down to see what had happened.

"I just gave my finger a nip in the desk," Sheila lied. 

Davy had been pleased with her.  She was on her way home after school, when she heard him calling her from behind the three bombed houses up the street.

"Sheila! Would you like a drag?"

It was her first taste of a cigarette.  Only for it being Davy that was giving it to her, Sheila wouldn't have been that keen.

After that, all the girls teased her about going with Davy Craig.  Most of them fancied him themselves.  But it was always Sheila whose hair he pulled, whose scarf he nicked in the playground, who he shared his cigarettes with.

Mammy and Daddy didn't know anything about it – not for years.  Sheila was at the grammar school, and going with Davy properly, before they ever heard about him.

They were neither of them too pleased.

"A clever girl like you, that's passed your 11+ and all!" Mammy had grumbled. "I don't know what you see in that edjit.  He'll be leaving school when he's sixteen, and ending up on the dole, you mark my words."

She had been right, too, but that wasn't Davy's fault.

He couldn't make a job for himself when there were none, could he?

Daddy hadn't been pleased either.

"I don't trust that fella an inch," he said. "You took out for yourself, Sheila.  He'll come to no good, and you with him, if you don't watch out."

They'd been glad when Sheila and Davy lost touch, the time he went off to England looking a job. 

Sheila had been working hard for her A-levels by then, and kept herself busy.

Then there had been the excitement of starting Queen's.

Davy had been far from her thoughts the day she bumped into him again, coming up Royal Avenue.

It was like he'd never been away.

They went into McDonald’s and Davy bought her a milk-shake.

Sheila asked him what he had been doing. He didn't say much.  Then he began to talk about the country. The state it was in.

"It's time somebody did something, Sheila!"

He sounded a bit like auntie Beattie, but Sheila knew better than to say so.

"You remember Morris Skinner and them boys at school?  They had the right idea."

"Morris Skinner is in the Maze, now."

"But at least he did something first!  I tell you, Sheila, I can't bear any more to sit and watch it."

Sheila looked at him. His dark hair falling over the white face.  His eyes bright.

"I'll say no more, now.  But I can count on you, Sheila, can't I?"

 

A draught blew up the cellar stairs from the open door.  Sheila shivered.

It was cold enough inside to skin you. She was getting dust all over her new jeans, too.

Davy was shouting something, but she couldn't hear what it was.  He was likely talking to Billy, anyway.

Last night, at the bank, he had shouted out every now and then.  

Each time she had thought it was for her, but it had always been for Billy.  To lift something heavy.  To hold the torch so Davy could see what he was doing. 

It had been a waste of time her being there, she grumbled afterwards, but Davy would have none of it.

"Sure, we needed a look-out, didn't we?  If the fuzz came just when Billy and me were coming out with the money, where would we be now?  In the Crumlin, wouldn't we?"

He was worried.  He needed somewhere to put the money, until the boys got word to him about where to deliver it. 

Auntie Beattie's cottage had been a great idea

"You're sure it's sitting empty?"

Sheila was sure.  Mammy had been talking just the other night about the shame it was, such a waste.  She still had the key in the top drawer of her dressing-table.  But, sure, it would be dishonest to go down when it wasn't even in the family now.

Feet clattered on the cellar stairs.

"Okay! Job done!"

Sheila couldn't remember seeing Davy in such tearing high spirits before.  Usually he was serious minded, moody even.

"Come on, let's get out of here!"

Billy spoke for the first time to Sheila's knowledge.

"Sooner the better - accidents happen with that stuff."

Davy grabbed her arm, and hustled them all out of the door.

"What does he mean?" Sheila asked. "It's only money, isn't it?"

Davy laughed.

"Sure, what else would it be?"

He almost ran her down the lane to the beach.

"Okay, Sheila, you make your own way back like we said before.  Don't want you to be seen with wild boyos like me and Billy here!"

He put his arm round her and gave her a quick kiss.

"I’ll give you a ring."

Then he was away racing across the beach.

 

The news was always on at night, in Sheila's house.

Sheila didn't listen to it that much.   It was always the same.

It was the next Thursday night, that young Tommy said, "Another bloody Taig shot.  Good riddance!"

Tommy had been bitter since he lost his leg in the bomb at the Horseshoe pub. 

Two years ago, now, but he didn't seem to get over it.

Mammy didn't tell him off, the way she would have done once.

"Whereabouts?" was all she said.

"Ballystravay.  That's not far from thon cottage my auntie Beattie used to have, right, Ma?"

"That's right, son.  Ballystravay was the nearest town to your auntie's.  We used to have some quare good times down there, before she flitted.   D'you mind the time your daddy fell into the river trying to land a trout?  I must tell him when he comes in from the pub.  He'd maybe know the fella that's shot, with coming from those parts himself."

Daddy knew him, sure enough.

"Kevin Bradley?  You’re joking me! Sure, he and I used to hang around together, one time!  Before I came up to Belfast, that is.  You wouldn't know him, Sadie.  It was before you and me got acquainted.

“And so Kevin's been shot, is it?  Well, well!  Many's the game of footer Kevin and me had.  He was a great goalie.  A harmless crater.   Coulda played for a team, I'd a thought. 

“What would anyone go shooting Kevin for?  He never did anyone any harm."

Sheila had nightmares that night, worse that any since the time Tommy lost his leg.

It began with a bee coming for her face, and getting larger and larger until it seemed about to smother her altogether. 

And there was a noise like a loud explosion, and her father's voice in the background, saying over and over again, "Harmless! Harmless!"

And through it all, the heavy scent of roses, and their soft scarlet petals showering down over her head and face.

"But they're the wrong colour! The wrong colour!"

"Sheila! Sheila, petsie, what is it?"

"What?"

Sheila sat bolt upright in her bed.

Her face was drained of blood by the harsh electric light.

"You were having a nightmare, pet.  Something about the wrong colour. What's wrong, my lamb?"

But Sheila only stared at her, and said nothing. 

Presently she began to cry.

"I can't tell you, mammy. I can't ever tell you."

 

















all copyrights belong to Gerry McCullough
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